India’s Press: It’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ for Everything from Zubair to Economy

”The press,” America’s Judge Hugo Black wrote, “was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

10 min read
Hindi Female

(This story was published on 20 July 2022 and is being republished in the backdrop of the Centre questioning the methodology behind the World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders, that placed India at the 150th stop out of 180.)

Chasing a random thought, I recently re-watched the 2017 Steven Spielberg movie, The Post.

It is the story of an unbridled government headed by a thin-skinned bully. Of a media house in severe financial stress. Of a publisher torn between the better angels of her nature and the fiduciary responsibility to her company. Of a brilliant editor whose credo is laid out in the scene where he walks into a news conference in the wake of a blockbuster exclusive in the rival New York Times and says, “Who else in this room is tired of reading the news instead of reporting it?”

It is a story of a different time. It is a story for our time.

  • Legacy media, faced with an authoritarian government, believes that publishing anything critical will bring doom. What it doesn't understand is that not to question power means they are already doomed.

  • India's situation is like that of the human beings immured since childhood inside a cave in Plato's The Republic. We refuse to listen to the few who have managed to catch a brief glimpse of the real world.

  • At the recent G7 summit, PM Modi signed the ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’. On that same day, Mohammed Zubair was arrested for a March 2018 tweet.

  • The dancing shadows on our screens assure us that all is well. But outside this cave of shadows, rupee is in free fall, suicides due to unemployment and the resulting debt burden are up 24%.

  • The truth – that we are governed by a party that has declared war on its own people – is too harsh for eyes grown acclimatised to the dark.


Is Legacy Media Already Doomed?

There is one scene I watched over and over. The NYT has published a multi-part expose on how successive US governments lied to the Congress and to the people about the course of the Vietnam war even as they sent more and more American soldiers to kill and to die.

The White House hits back with a court-ordered injunction against the publication of any further exposes. The Washington Post, then a small DC-based paper, manages to get hold of a cache of secret documents, and editor Ben Bradlee leads his team in a frantic race against a deadline to sift through over 4,000 pages and fashion a story.

Fritz Beebe, chairman of the board of The Washington Post, argues with Bradlee. Publishing in defiance of the injunction, Beebe says, will deal a death blow to the struggling paper.

“If you publish despite the court injunction,” Beebe says, “The Washington Post as we know it will cease to exist.”

“If we live in a world where the government can tell us what we can and cannot print,” Bradlee retorts, “then the Washington Post as we know it has already ceased to exist.”

That scene, lasting less than a minute, sums up the existential dilemma of our media today.

Legacy media, faced with an authoritarian, vengeful government, believes that publishing anything remotely critical will bring doom. What they don’t appreciate is that to not publish – to not question power, to not give voice to the voiceless – means they are already doomed, that they are on a butter slide to irrelevance.

When We Refuse to See the Truth, Like Plato's Cavemen

To understand the world we live in, turn to Book VII of The Republic. In it, Plato imagines a group of human beings immured since childhood inside a cave. Their legs and necks are shackled to the walls of the cave; they can change neither position nor perspective. All they can do is stare straight ahead; all they can see are the shadows that flit across the wall opposite them – shadows sans substance, sans meaning, sans context.

What if one of these people, or a small subset of them, are freed of their chains and find their way out into the outside world? At first, their eyes are blinded by the strong light. Then, as their eyes adjust to the light, they begin to see the world for what it really is.

What if these persons are then dragged back to the cave and chained up as before? What if all they can see now are those flickering shadows – shadows deliberately cast to distract from reality?

Now, however, they know what the world is really like; they know that the shadows on the walls bear no resemblance to that real world. And so they speak out.

They tell their less fortunate fellows – the ones that never got to escape from the cave, even temporarily – that they are seeing illusions designed to hide reality. They tell their fellows what the world is really like.

Will the others accept these truths? Or will they resist any attempt to question what they have long perceived as the truth? Will they listen, or will they turn on those who have managed to catch a brief glimpse of the real world – turn on them, and seek to destroy them so that they can be comfortable again in their make-believe world of fleeting shadows?


The Irony of Zubair's Arrest

Plato’s parable came to mind in late June when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Germany as one of the invitees for the G-7 summit. On the flickering scenes of the electronic caves we have immured ourselves in, we saw drummers celebrating the Prime Minister’s arrival (we did not see that the drummers had been flown there at government expense to get up a show).

While in Germany, the Prime Minister, along with the heads of the G-7 countries and three other invited nations, signed the ‘2022 Resilient Democracies Statement’, which committed the signatories to “guarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors” and to “protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline”.

On that same day, the co-founder of a fact-checking website was arrested for a March 2018 tweet that featured a screengrab from a 1983 comedy helmed by the late Hrishikesh Mukherjee. He was granted interim bail today, after three weeks.

Mohammed Zubair is one of those who wandered out of the cave, got acclimatised to the world made visible by the harsh sunlight of truth, and with his AltNews colleague, Pratik Sinha, set out to tell the rest of us what the world was really like. And like the denizens of Plato’s cave, we turned against him.

The enforcement arm of the state buried him under an avalanche of cases so farcical that it would be laughable if the casual disregard of due process weren’t so tragic.

The judicial arm of the state gave him his liberty – for five days – so he could be freed from one case and arrested in another. The country’s lead advocate laughed, in court, at his plight; his junior termed a man who had openly called for mass rape “a respected religious leader”.

The guardians of the media met and harangued each other; they spoke about the need to go beyond meetings and resolutions. Then the meeting ended, and a resolution was passed. And we remained immersed in the flickering electronic shadows flitting across our TV screens and smartphones and tablets because the truth – that we are governed by a party that has declared war on its own people – is too harsh for eyes grown acclimatised to the dark.


Chanting 'All Is Well' ... But Is it?

Zubair is hardly an exception. The Quint, where this column appears, recently did a video report on the dangers of being a journalist in India – the same India that had recently signed on to protect the freedom of expression and opinion both online and offline. The report is titled ‘Darr, Danger and Death’ – the sort of job description they don’t teach you about in journalism school.

And while on the promise to protect freedom of expression, India leads the world in internet shutdowns and in takedown requests. A recent report said that takedown requests to Twitter had soared from 20 in 2014 to 9,693 in 2020. Recently, Twitter took the government to court because even that platform – not the last bastion of free speech at the best of times – found the government’s takedown requests a bit much.

It has got so bad that when human rights watchdog Freedom House recently tweeted that internet freedom had declined in India, the government ordered Twitter to take down that tweet. QED.

The dancing shadows on our screens assure us that all is well. That India is the ‘Vishwaguru’. That our Prime Minister is the observed of all observers, the one the world turns to for advice and assistance in times of crisis. That, according to Cabinet Minister Piyush Goyal, we will be a $30 trillion economy “very soon” (apparently the $5 trillion economy promised by the Prime Minister wasn’t sufficiently ambitious for his minister).


See No Evil

Meanwhile, outside this cave of dancing shadows, we find that the rupee is in freefall and that prices of all essentials are skyrocketing. That the government, far from providing the employment it promised, is presiding over a country where 1.3 crore jobs were lost in June 2022 alone. That the government owes Rs 11,097 crore to workers across 15 states for work already done under the MNREGA scheme, and that suicides due to unemployment and the resulting debt burden are up 24%. That our fiscal deficit went up three times in May. That our trade deficit is at an all-time high. That our forex reserves are down. That foreign investors continue to exit the Indian market at a record rate. That the demand for office space is down 26%, and that only one-quarter of the startups in the country are financially viable. That FMCG sales are down, and that leading FMCG brands have opted for what the economist johnnies call ‘shrinkflation’.

We learn that India ranks 150 out of 180 countries in freedom of the press; that it ranks 101 out of 116 nations in the Global Hunger Index; that it is 131 out of 189 countries in the Human Development Index; 119 out of 165 in the Human Freedom Index. It has come to a point where activist and author Aakar Patel is needing to update his book The Price of the Modi Years every other month.

The shadows dance in abandon over the prospect of the country getting its first ever tribal President – a consummation, we are told, that will lead to the upliftment of tribals across the country. In the same week as Draupadi Murmu’s name was announced as the BJP’s presidential candidate, Rampiyari Bai, a 23-year-old tribal woman, was set ablaze in Guna, Madhya Pradesh, because she protested encroachment on her land. Also in the same week, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified the Forest Conservation Rules 2022, which allows the Union government to permit the clearing of forest land without consulting the people – the tribals – who live on it.


Hatred Is the Fuel for Politics

The Indian Army, last heard from, is struggling to maintain communications along the fraught Line of Actual Control (LAC) because the 5G infrastructure, set up by an unrepentantly aggressive China, is creating a loud booming noise in Indian communications equipment. Meanwhile, the many armies of Hindutva face no hindrance in communicating their hate-filled agenda.

Thus, one group barges into a theatre where a Kannada adaptation of Fiddler On The Roof is being staged and shuts it down on the grounds that there are too many Muslim characters in it. Elsewhere, other groups file FIRs that led to the arrest of a man in Assam who staged a street play protesting rising fuel prices while dressed as Shiva.

And in Haryana, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sets up a “helpline” so Hindus who feel threatened by “love jihad” or “land jihad” (Assam recently added “flood jihad”, leading to an increased demand for facepalm emojis), or whose sentiments are hurt, can procure guns to defend their opportunistically fragile sensibilities.

See what American historian Henry Adams meant when he said that politics ”has always been the systematic organisation of hatreds”?

For how long? And to what end?


'It Is the Economy, Stupid!'

On the same day that my editor at The Quint reminded me that my debut column was due, I was following the extraordinary events in Sri Lanka where one group of citizens, pushed beyond bearing by skyrocketing prices and crippling scarcity, took over the Galle Fort overlooking the ground where the Lankan cricket team was performing prodigies against the higher rated visitors from Australia. At the same time, other groups stormed the presidential palace and the prime minister’s home and office, chasing those two worthies out of office in a remarkable revolt.

It is worth noting that Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa came to power in 2019 on the back of a planned communal campaign targeting the island nation’s Muslims, Christians and Hindus; that he secured an electoral landslide on the promise of economic prosperity and strong nationalism; that his tenure was marked by vanity infrastructure projects; that his government brought in rules aimed at the large-scale destruction of forest lands at the hands of private enterprise; that it catastrophically mismanaged the agricultural sector; that wrong-headed taxation policies crippled the economy, triggered massive unemployment, saw a 30-plus per cent depreciation in the value of the Sri Lankan rupee, depleted foreign exchange reserves and pushed the country into an unsustainable debt situation.

It reminds you of the famous Bill Clinton formulation: It is the economy, stupid!

And even as I write this, the news is that hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Tirana, Albania, protesting rising prices, the surging cost of living, and official corruption.

Those who do not learn the lessons of history – even recent history – doom the rest of us to relive it.


What the Press Really Is About

The publication of the Pentagon Papers by the New York Times in 1971 – the incident that Spielberg drew on for The Post – resulted in a First Amendment case heard by the full bench of the United States Supreme Court.

The NYT – and The Washington Post, which followed the Times in publishing excerpts – argued for the fundamental rights of a free press to publish matters of public interest, while the state argued that national security trumped free speech. The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favour of the free press.

It is a remarkable judgment. While re-reading it recently, some lines jumped out at me.”The word ‘security’ is a broad, vague generality whose contours should not be invoked to abrogate the fundamental law embodied in the First Amendment. The guarding of military and diplomatic secrets at the expense of informed representative government provides no real security for our Republic.”

And, most emotively, these words of Justice Hugo Black, who pointed out that the First Amendment was enshrined in the Constitution to give the free press the protection it needs to fulfil an essential role in democracy, ring truer than ever.

Upholding the right of the press to publish what it deemed was in the public interest, he pointed out that the government’s power to censor the press was abolished (by the First Amendment) so that the press would remain free to censure the government; that the press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.

”The press,” Judge Black wrote, “was to serve the governed, not the governors.”

(Prem Panicker is a senior Indian journalist and tweets @prempanicker. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Journalism   press freedom   Free Press 

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